- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Phoenix guard Cappie Pondexter went so far as to call the 2008 WNBA season "a waste of a year" for her. Harsh, perhaps, but her honest assessment. Coming off the league championship in '07, the Mercury didn't even make the playoffs last season.
"One thing I've learned is to continue to push my teammates," Pondexter said. "Especially as one of the leaders of the team. I don't think I did a good job of keeping everybody together last year, and that's something I've focused on since training camp this season."
When she and Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi would see each other during their playing stints in Russia, they would discuss what had to be different for 2009 when they got back to Phoenix.
"I'd say, 'We need to challenge everybody each day, as well as demonstrating it ourselves,'" Pondexter said. "Sometimes I am a very quiet person and can be to myself. And I've learned to be more giving to my teammates.
"You never know if someone's having a down day, so if you extend your hand and listen to that person, that can affect things on the court. There are a lot of things that happen off the court that affect what goes on on the court."
Those things that Pondexter and Taurasi talked about through the cold Russian winter seem to be manifesting themselves in the sizzling Phoenix summer. The Mercury's 94-88 victory Sunday in New York moved the team to 13-5, the best record in the WNBA.
Taurasi had 34 points and 13 rebounds, and it's of no small matter that both she and Pondexter played in the All-Star Game on Saturday at the Mohegan Sun, then made such a quick turnaround.
Pondexter didn't have the type of performance that matches the high standards she has set this season in particular, as she forced too many shots, going 3-of-16 from the field for 10 points.
But the team still won, and that's her bottom line. On Tuesday, Pondexter and Taurasi will be back at the Mohegan Sun Arena for a matchup with Connecticut (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET).
The Mercury start the second half of the season with the same mentality they've had since getting under way in 2009.
"It was disappointing to win it all and then come back and not even make the playoffs," Taurasi said. "I think we all left that last game [in 2008] knowing we'd let a lot of games get away, and it wasn't X's and O's. It was purely not having the togetherness to win.
"In the WNBA, when there's so much parity with every team being right there, you have to be willing to play together and make big plays at the end. You have to be the most comfortable with each other."
Tuesday's game will be the second of five consecutive road contests for the Mercury, who then face East-leading Indiana when Phoenix returns home Aug. 8. Somewhere in that time, Penny Taylor might be back on the court for the Mercury.
Taylor recently returned to Phoenix after opting to sit out the previous WNBA season because of her commitment to the Australian national team for the Olympics and her need for rest and recuperation. She is still recovering fully from ankle surgery, so the exact date of her return to the court for Phoenix is uncertain. But whenever she's back out there, she will find an even more polished duo in Taurasi and Pondexter.
Which she already knows. Taylor played alongside Pondexter in Russia, and frequently saw Taurasi there, too.
"We've been really good friends the last five or six years," Taurasi said of Taylor. "I know she's really excited to get back. She loves playing in the WNBA, and we obviously love having her."
But even without Taylor, Pondexter (20.1 ppg) and Taurasi (21.6 ppg) have put the Mercury back on top in the West this season. Long-ago rivals in the Big East, they've become very close while in Phoenix.
Taurasi has such an outgoing personality, nearly everyone in comparison can seem, at a cursory glance, rather bland. Pondexter has never minded being in that "sidekick" role, but the reality is that she has been steadily emerging as a leader with her personality, too.
"I've always been a complement to her -- there's a reason why we are really good friends and why we've been successful," Pondexter said. "We are supportive of each other, and if something is wrong, we'll talk about it. We're not always agreeing with each other, but that's fine.
"I think my personality is really good for her. She is an outgoing person. I'm outgoing, too, sometimes, but I'm much more laid-back."
That's not to be taken as meaning Pondexter is somehow less intense as a player, because that's not true. And she's intent on making sure she's known as more than just an offensive superstar but rather a complete player.
"I think I've shown growth in terms of being well-rounded with my game," Pondexter said. "With assists, rebounds, playing defense, getting after it. I've been showing a lot of different things, not just that I can score.
"This past year in Europe, I played the point guard position. So I learned a lot in that experience. I don't mind doing it, and it's definitely going to help me for Phoenix and for USA Basketball and the national team. And I challenged myself to really get out there on the rebounding, and Diana did, too."
Taurasi said, "We've been playing together so long, and a game can flow either way toward one of us, and we just feed off that. I've never played with someone with so much talent who is so unselfish. It's easy to be on the court with her."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
16dBonnie D. Ford